Is the Most Effective Mix of Solutions on Your Menu for Addressing the Housing Crisis?

by Zachary Murray, State and Local Policy Specialist, Grounded Solutions Network

Communities from coast to coast are confronting a housing affordability crisis, and the crisis takes different forms. Long-unaffordable cities like New York and San Francisco are booming and becoming more unaffordable. In rapidly gentrifying communities like Oakland, California, and New Orleans, homeless encampments have become a visible symbol of inequality as working- and middle-class people and communities of color face the prevalent threat of displacement. Meanwhile, cities like St. Louis and Detroit are seeking to rebound from decades of abandonment and disinvestment. Moreover, within any city, individual neighborhoods’ top housing concerns may differ from the citywide trend. In cities like Atlanta and Philadelphia, downtowns have new residential towers and office buildings, while areas away from the core contend with decline. Often, tax incentives and subsidies drive redevelopment in cities with struggling or mixed markets. Yet even as downtown development increases and rents become more unaffordable, vacant housing and blight persist in other city neighborhoods.

Seeking Solutions

Although they face different housing dynamics, all communities should promote inclusive growth.  The good news is that many cities are creating plans to address their housing affordability issues through a suite of policies. In Austin, Texas, where nearly half of renters are “burdened” by rents, the East Austin neighborhood is undergoing rapid changes. The predominantly black and Hispanic community had experienced disinvestment for most of the 20th century, but now, increased demand is displacing longtime residents. In response to the city’s decade-long housing boom and the dynamics posed, officials in Austin created a Strategic Housing Blueprint that lays out available policy options and sets out the city’s goals and vision for housing development. In Baltimore, despite decades of investment along the waterfront, the resource-strapped city contends with thousands of vacant units and nearly 7,000 families evicted annually, among the highest eviction rates nationwide according to the Public Justice Center. Housing advocates led by the Baltimore Housing Roundtable are pushing the city to develop a strategic vision for housing that includes an annual allocation of $20 million to support permanently affordable housing via community land trusts.

Choosing the Most Effective Policy Tools

To address local housing dynamics and encourage inclusive growth, advocates and policymakers should ask, “How can we best preserve community stability, ensure better access to high-opportunity areas, and help residents of color and low-income residents prosper?” As more communities engage in housing policy work like that of Austin and Baltimore, local community leaders and officials need to know which policy tools will be most effective given their local housing challenges.

Advocates often prefer policy solutions, such as stronger renter protections and inclusionary housing in strong-market cities or community benefits agreements at local development sites in mixed-market cities. But the need for local policy leadership requires more strategic action and an awareness of all available tools. To fill the gap, Grounded Solutions Network developed What about Housing? A Policy Toolkit for Inclusive Growth. The toolkit aims to help communities combat housing issues by aiding advocates and policymakers in understanding available housing policy options and the approaches that will work best for their communities.

To identify the best approach, communities must understand their local housing situation. Although communities nationwide share in the housing crisis experience, solutions work best when tailored to a community’s local dynamics. Grounded Solutions Network identified three common housing situations: (1) our housing is already unaffordable, (2) rents are rising and our neighborhood is gentrifying, and (3) blight is a problem and our neighborhood is in decline. Community leaders can read about those situations (including case studies of communities that fit each situation), identify which situations best fit their communities, and see which policy tools are best suited to those situations.

Community leaders can also use the toolkit to find appropriate tools not by guessing which one might work, but by asking questions they are already asking, such as “How do we keep existing tenants in their homes?” and “How can we fund affordable housing investments?” The highlighted tools are based on solutions and best practices that create and preserve housing that is affordable for the long term. Additionally, the tools generally fall under the purview of a city, town, or county, such as tenant right of first refusal, community land trusts, housing trust funds, and inclusionary housing policies. There is no panacea to the affordable housing crisis. The case studies and policies in the toolkit highlight the need for a local ecosystem of housing policies to help fill the gaps. If local policymakers and advocates hit a roadblock because of state policy limitations, the toolkit provides clear and quick options that could advance similar goals.

Addressing Historic Inequities

Grounded Solutions Network developed the Inclusive Growth Toolkit with Designing the We, a Bronx-based design firm that developed a traveling exhibition in partnership with Enterprise Community Partners called Undesign the Redline. The Undesign exhibit chronicles the history of redlining in US cities with a detailed history specific to each city on tour. Redlining refers to discrimination in mortgage lending and insurance against a specific geographic area based on factors including race. Redlining reinforced segregation and deprived communities of needed capital investment. Redlining resulted in different outcomes for communities of color and continues to affect communities across the country. Historic redlining maps often overlap with areas that presently experience high poverty rates, declining housing stocks, and low homeownership rates. Housing is a critical aspect of the legacy of redlining, and now, communities can be just as strategic in implementing solutions.

Declining Federal Support

The need for local action is driven in large part by declining federal support for affordable housing. Despite the fact that every US county has too few affordable units for low-income households and that estimates suggest the affordable housing stock declined 60 percent nationwide between 2010 and 2016, federal support for affordable housing continues to decline. Tax reform and continuous budget cuts threaten the effectiveness of such programs as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, the nation’s large source of funding for affordable housing construction. The lack of federal support for local communities means that now, more than ever, communities must strategize with limited resources to confront a growing crisis. What about Housing? A Policy Toolkit for Inclusive Growth is a key resource to support communities and to comprehensively address local housing challenges.